College Football Playoff to Release First Rankings of a Chaotic Season

In a year in which very little is normal, count on this: The College Football Playoff selection committee will make an announcement on Tuesday night that, as in previous years, will infuriate some fans.

The 13-member committee is scheduled to release its first rankings of this pandemic-disrupted season at about 7 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, giving the sport’s devotees and power brokers their inaugural look at what the postseason might look like.

The top four teams in The Associated Press Top 25 pollAlabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Clemson — are assuredly in contention for the top four spots in the preliminary playoff rankings. But in that order? Will the playoff committee slot one or more at No. 5 or lower? How will the panel view Brigham Young, undefeated over its nine games, or 8-0 Cincinnati? Will Oregon’s perfect record across just three games to date put the Ducks high in the mix? What do you do with an Indiana team whose only loss was a narrow one to mighty Ohio State? And what of the Big 12?

We don’t really know what the committee will do with its take on the best 25 teams in college football. But here’s what we do know about the process in a year in which more than 80 games have been canceled or postponed.

College football has a fractured schedule, varied approaches to the pandemic by top leagues and uncertainty over whether the season will last long enough to hold the playoffs safely. But the Playoff is still aiming for something like a business-as-usual approach.

The selection committee is still planning to meet weekly at a hotel near Dallas, as usual, despite the surging tally of virus cases around the United States and recommendations from health officials to avoid most travel. The committee’s members are being tested for the virus.

The semifinal matchups are set for Jan. 1, as long planned, just as the national championship game is still scheduled for Jan. 11 outside Miami. Conference championships are still likely to carry a high value before the final rankings come down on Dec. 20.

“They’ve still been watching games all season,” Bill Hancock, the Playoff’s executive director, said of the selection committee last week. “This is why we have a committee of 13 experts rather than some data-driven system. It’s because these people can discern.”

But Hancock acknowledged in an interview that some factors that committees have considered in the past are absent, most notably games that top teams play outside their conferences.

“The one that’s probably most significant in everyone’s mind is the lack of those marquee intersectional games,” Hancock said. “Just look back at the games that were important to the committee through the years — Notre Dame-Georgia, the two Oklahoma-Ohio State games, Oregon-Auburn — and the committee won’t have that this year.”

Among the planned games this year that were lost: Alabama-Southern California, Ohio State at Oregon and a Wisconsin-Notre Dame showdown at Lambeau Field.

That’s right.

“It’s in the discretion of each of the 13 members, and keep in mind no one knows how many games any team will play this season,” Hancock said. “Each individual member considers what’s most important to him or her. People talk about the committee as a singular unit; really, it’s plural: It’s 13 members making individual decisions.”

Although conferences have imposed requirements for teams to reach league championships, the committee has no threshold for how many games a team must play to be eligible for the playoff.

“The number of games and wins by each team is certainly important in weighing its ranking, but it is not the only factor,” the Playoff said on its website. The Playoff added, “The more games played, the more chances a team has to prove itself to the committee.”

Not this year, at least. But it could certainly be bigger in future seasons.

Gary Barta, the athletic director at Iowa, leads the selection committee. Other members include the athletic directors at Arkansas State, Colorado, Florida, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma and Wyoming, as well as a professor at Arizona. Ken Hatfield, who led the football programs at Air Force, Arkansas, Clemson and Rice, is a member, as is R.C. Slocum, who coached Texas A&M.

Ronnie Lott, the former Southern California star, and John Urschel, who played at Penn State, sit on the panel. Raymond T. Odierno, the retired general who was the U.S. Army chief of staff, is also a member.

The first rankings and the final ones have always seen changes. In 2017 and 2018, though, three of the initial top four teams ultimately appeared in the season’s playoffs.

Last season, two teams that were on an early course to reach a semifinal actually made it there: Louisiana State and Ohio State. L.S.U. ultimately won the national championship when it beat Clemson in New Orleans.

Alabama and Penn State were initially placed in the top four last year. Later that week, Alabama lost to L.S.U. and Penn State fell at Minnesota.

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